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It's become accepted wisdom that Twitter is a great way to communicate with customers and get feedback about your products. I've actually had success using Twitter for prospecting. Here's my process (which I picked up from Mike Dubrall):
  1. Identify your prospects, and put them in a list. These should be people who could benefit from your service, and people that post quality content to Twitter. Make this list private.
  2. Using HootSuite, TweetDeck or any other type of Twitter app, set up a Twitter feed with all of your prospects' tweets.
  3. Respond to tweets as appropriate. This part has to be genuine--make sure you're adding to the conversation and not becoming an annoyance.
  4. Once a relationship has been established (this part should take a few months), I will reach out to engage the prospect at their work about my product via phone or email. I don't do this via direct message, as I think it is important to keep my Twitter persona conversational, and to send the signal that any sales engagement is separate from any Twitter engagement.
So that's my process. The trick is that there is no trick. If you're insincere or simply commenting so that the prospect will recognize your name you might have some success, but I have found that truly engaging the prospect over a period of time gives you a much better understanding of their needs, and leads to better sales conversations.

I would be interested to hear what others are doing. What do you think, is it appropriate to send a direct message within Twitter or is phone/email the way to go?
Three companies have made a big impact online recently by publishing content that was not initially created with a marketing focus. As Jason Fried mentioned in a recent article, most marketing content is so generic it loses all meaning. Netflix, Dropbox and Xobni have all recently posted unique content, content which does a better job of marketing their companies than any copywriter could hope to achieve.

Netflix posted an HR focused slide deck describing their corporate culture on SlideShare (the corporate shill in me wants to point out this could have been more effectively delivered using Brainshark, but that's not the point). By posting this they are essentially letting the world know what type of employees they are looking for, and letting potential employees understand exactly what to expect at Netflix. It essentially became a very targeted recruiting tool:

Dropbox got great press putting up slides and a video of a presentation one of their founders gave describing their unusual strategy for growth. It mentions Dropbox as being a great application, but that is not the focus. That said, viewers are left with a great impression of Dropbox as a company, and it has much more impact than a traditional marketing piece describing feature sets. Again, I want to point out this is simply a video of a talk the founder was already scheduled to deliver at a conference:

Xobni also has a great presentation talking about their growth. Again, this is different than a traditional marketing pitch, but more effective because it is different:

The overriding theme is that most companies have these type of presentations posted on some type of internal portal, or available when execs need to speak at conferences. They should be publishing everything, and letting their customers get a better feel for who the company is, what their journey has been, and where they are looking to go. David Meerman Scott talks a lot about this, but publishing quality content is a tremendous way to drive revenue and stand out from the rest of the online noise.
Last week I attended a conference put on by Nokia entitled "Driving Internet Strategies", and there was a panel speaking about innovation. All 3 speakers (and the audience) had some great points. I'll blog about all 3 this week.

The first speaker was Daniel Sullivan, Founder & President of Appswell. Appswell is a Boston based company dedicated to the democratization of brilliant decisions. The app, also called Appswell, allows users to submit ideas for iPhone and iPod touch applications. Other users, who've registered with Appswell, can offer their feedback on the idea, voting for the ones they like. Every four weeks or so, Appswell picks a winner based on user votes. Appswell, along with its partner Bit Group will turn the app proposal into a finished product. The user who came up with the idea gets $1,000 plus 10% of the profits from subsequent App store sales.

This is clearly a very innovative business model, and Daniel had some really interesting thoughts. He described how a lot of their marketing strategy revolved around the free press that can be (and has been) generated when you are at the merger of two "hot" fields (in his case crowd-sourcing and the mobile web). His marketing metrics were also really interesting, in that Appswell has found that a lot of people who tweet about them do not actually visit the links they are posting, meaning Appswell has gotten a lot of buzz from people who want to be seen as being interested in companies like Appswell. This separation between perception and action is actually a key metric for a company such as Appswell, who needs to make sure that people are voting for apps they would actually buy, rather than apps they would like others to believe they would buy.
My company had our annual meeting over the last two days, and one of the presentations focused on the power of a good story.

This is a video they showed to illustrate the point:

I use stories all the time in and out of work. People hate complaints and hate being sold to, but nobody hates a good story. Here's a quick example:

On Thursday I left my Blackberry in one of the boxes at the Boston Garden. On Friday, I called up Verizon, and they were able to hook me up with a discount on a new (much cooler) phone running Android. On Saturday I went to the Verizon store in downtown Boston, got my new phone, and walked out happy, right? Wrong.

Unfortunately, my wife had come with me to pickup my phone, and she was planning to upgrade from a Blackberry to Android as well. Understandably, she assumed that since Verizon was letting me upgrade early after losing my phone, they would let her (the responsible one who did not lose her phone) upgrade at the same time. This was not the case, and after trying to logically explain to the rep at the store why they should let us buy a second phone at a discounted rate the rep refused, my wife left empty handed, and it brought on a serious case of gadget envy.

When we got home, I called up Verizon customer service and took a different strategy. Rather than complaining that we only got one phone, I told the customer service rep the entire story, with the focus on how happy I was that they let me upgrade early, but how giving me a cool new phone lead to unforeseen consequences and marital discord. He loved the story, and was able to pull some strings to get the new phone sent out the same day.

By telling a story rather than trying to persuade with logical arguments, it is ofter easier to foster a feeling of a shared purpose, rather than an adversarial relationship. This can often be a much easier, and much more enjoyable way to get to a desired result.
My entrepreneurship class at the Boston University School of Management presented business plans to a panel of Venture Capitalists last night. These are my top 5 takeaways:

1. Have an elevator pitch

The first person to present last night is the CEO of a really interesting company trying to change the way business is done on a massive scale. He gave a great presentation, and told a really impactful story about the need for his business and his solution. I was completely sold, but the VCs all had concerns about his ability to present his idea to the market. In one person's words, "If I can't explain your business in 2 sentences, we have issues.

2. Have a revenue model

It seems simple, but it is critical to have a clear business model. There are often several viable revenue models for a particular business, and you need to explicitly explain how your business will make money.

3. Show graphs, not numbers

When you don't have hard numbers, don't expose yourself to needless criticism. This is especially true when presenting long term projections such as 5 year projected revenues and net income. Since these are rough projections, showing trends is enough, and putting numbers on the screen is just inviting for trouble. And if you're going to show numbers, say year 5 revenues will be $10,750,000 not $10,754,886.13.

4. Business model matters

Just as there are multiple possible revenue models for most business, there are also multiple possible business models. Make sure that the model you are proposing is the one that makes the most sense. For example, one group put together a really nice presentation for a product they are looking to sell B-to-C at first, followed by a phase 2 shift to B-to-B sales. During the discussions, there was criticism of this choice. Criticism could have been avoided with a more thorough explanation of the choice of the business model.

5. Don't make claims you can't back up

This was a big one. Don't claim you can manufacture a product at a cost that seems abnormably low. Don't claim your product will be the most successful iPhone app ever created just because it helps the presentation. It is clear to the audience that you're taking liberties with your presentation, and this seems to be a really easy way to qualify yourself out of consideration.

Ron Bienvenu gave a great speech last week about entrepreneurship, and he raised some really interesting points. Ron has founded and sold 2 software firms, lead a hostile takeover, managed 50 public and private M&A events, and has raised over $250M through every possible method from venture capital firms. This guy is super smart, really charismatic and is clearly a phenomenal business man.

One of the points he brought up that really hit home was that almost everything is a commodity these days. Intelligence can be a commodity if you hire smart people. Money is clearly a commodity. Even ideas become commodities as ideas spread across the internet faster than companies can monetize them. Ron had no problem discussing his next big idea in front of an audience of entrepreneurs because the idea will likely become public knowledge anyway before he has a chance to bring it to completion.

So what is it that Ron believes sets successful entrepreneurs apart? In his words, "toughness". How you respond to setbacks, competition, disappointments and the unexpected dictates how successful your company will be. Anyone can hire a smart CFO to read a balance sheet or a good marketing person to execute a marketing plan. These are business skills. How you react when a customer is late with a payment and you can't make payroll, or a huge company decides to enter your space with a competitive product is where toughness really becomes essential the the survival of your company.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. This theory assumes that everyone has (or hires someone who has) the hard skills necessary to succeed. Is that a valid assumption? And is toughness really the differentiating factor for success?
Bill Belichick's decision not to punt on a 4th and 2 from his own 28 with 2 minutes to go during Sunday's game against Indianapolis has been THE topic of conversation here in New England for the last 2 days. Setting aside the unsuccessful results of the play, there are some lessons that can learned when looking at his decision, and the resulting media fallout.

1. If you don't like the rules to the game, don't play by them

Football is a game that follows a conservative structure. There are deviations and allowances for risk within the structure (run/pass rations, trick plays, etc.), but most teams play by similar basic strategies. Bill Belichick thought that playing within the established conventions (i.e. punting on 4th down from his own territory) would lead to failure, so he decided to buck convention and send his offense back out for 4th down.

This type of flexible thinking is valuable in business. Can't respond to an RFP? Work with your customer to change their requirements. See an opportunity to expand into a new space? What says you can't shift strategies and go for the win? Malcolm Gladwell wrote a tremendous article in the New Yorker on this topic.

2. Play to you strengths

By punting the ball Belichick would put the game in the hands of Peyton Manning, the Colts' best player. By going for it on 4th down the game was in the hands of Tom Brady, the Patriots' best player.

Similar to the first point, why compete on a level or negatively slanted playing field? This is one reason niche businesses are so successful; by "owning a space" you are forcing the competition to meet you at your strongest point.

3. Empower your employees

Belichick made his decision knowing that the NFL rarely rewards risk, and often punishes coaches for deviating from established wisdom. Bob Kraft, the owner of the Patriots has clearly created a situation where his employees are empowered to make difficult and risky decisions without fear of disproportionate retribution. Kraft understands the need to delegate responsibilities to his specialists, and allow them the autonomy to do what they think is best.

4. Wait before judging

The immediate reaction to Belichick's decision was extremely negative. All of the televised experts were incredulous, and some were calling it the worst decision they'd ever seen.

A day later a blog called Advanced NFL Stats ran the numbers, and found that by punting the Patriots would win 70% of the time, and by not punting they would win 79% of the time. While there is room for discussion about the numbers, at worst both options were equivalent, and at best Belichick gave the Patriots a better chance to win with his decision.

In business we have strong reactions to new ideas all the time, and pressure to come to immediate decisions. There are times when the appropriate decision is to wait, delve deeper into the facts, and only decide once a clear, emotion free understanding of the situation has been established.

5. High profile mistakes overshadow more important mistakes

Everyone talks about the big, high profile mistake. Nobody talks about the hundred other plays or decisions that go into determining the outcome of a game.

Many companies have a similar focus. Did you not make a sales number because a huge deal fell out at the end, or did you not make it because your team wasn't doing the day-to-day activity to fill its pipeline? Did your employee quit because of an argument with a boss, or did she quit because of a poor work environment? Often times enough focus on the minutia makes the bigger decisions less important.

Please leave comments if anything jumps out at you!